THE biggest farming group in the US has backed moves to promote coexistence between organic and biotech farmers.
American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman dismissed suggestions of widespread legal disputes between the two farming groups as “merely the product of an activist agenda”.
With a landmark legal argument over property rights hanging in the balance between an organic farmer and genetically modified (GM) canola grower in Western Australia, Mr Stallman said earlier this month the Farm Bureau’s members supported the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) decision on an “important” recommendation on biotechnology.
The USDA’s recommendation was contained in a report from the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) which aims to foster communication and collaboration to strengthen coexistence among farmers.
“We are disappointed by the implication from activist groups opposed to modern farming practices that there is widespread disagreement when it comes to coexistence and agricultural biotechnology,” Mr Stallman said.
“Frankly, that assertion does not hold up to scrutiny.”
Mr Stallman said for decades, a hallmark of US agriculture has been the ability of farmers to pursue innovation, utilise diverse cropping systems and respond to consumer demand for high-value, identity-preserved and speciality crops.
“Contrary to the claims by some who have a stake in muddying the waters with overblown charges, the diversity and vitality of our industry would not be possible if not for the past success of coexistence, or as we practice it, just being a good neighbour,” he said.
“Although GMO opponents talk about a deluge of legal disputes between farmers for unintentional gene flow, the AC21 report didn't identify or find evidence of significant legal disputes among farmers related to coexistence or cases of farmers being threatened legally for unintentional gene flow,” he said.
“Any purported 'war' in agriculture does not reflect facts and is merely the product of an activist agenda that does not reflect the best interest of farmers or American agriculture.”
ABCA hits back
Following dissent and division over GM crops continuing in Australia, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA) hit back, using the recent annual ‘Science Meets Parliament’ week in Canberra to launch a new publication designed to deliver science-based information on GM crops, “to contribute to a more informed national discussion about agricultural technologies”.
ABCA says the publication, The Official Australian Reference Guide to Agricultural Biotechnology and GM Crops, provides a comprehensive overview of agricultural biotechnology in Australia and answers common questions about GM crops.
“The guide also presents information on coexistence in farming and the on-farm management practices and systems currently in place that maintain the integrity of both GM and non-GM crops,” ABCA said.
In his speech to the science forum, Opposition leader Bill Shorten said, “I believe that every policy challenge Australia currently faces will benefit from a more scientific focus – and more scientific input”.
He said new ideas were needed for farming and food security, “working with cutting edge and productivity-creating technology… (and) new ideas for our environment - shaped by a recognition of the scientific consensus, not some ideological repudiation of it”.
Australia’s organic criteria 'inconsistent'
Commenting on the USDA report, CropLife Australia CEO Matthew Cossey said organic and modern farming systems “do exist side-by-side in Australia, as they do in the rest of the world”.
Mr Cossey said long-standing systems and process were in place to manage coexistence of farming. However, he said, the organic industry’s “self-appointed” zero-tolerance marketing criteria for GM “promotes high-risk farming practices in the hunt for premium prices”.
“It is Australia’s organic criteria that are inconsistent with the rest of the world and threaten Australia’s agricultural harmony that has been enjoyed for so long,” he said.
“Any discussion about agricultural biotechnology and the use of GM crops must be based on science and evidence, not just the loudest voices.
“Australian farmers must continue to have access to new technologies and innovations if they are to continue to provide high-quality and large quantities of food, feed and fibre while responsibly managing their land.”
The ABCA said that in 2013, more than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted GM crops across 175 million hectares.
“Since their commercialisation 18 years ago, GM crops have been planted across an accumulated 1.6 billion hectares,” ABCA said.
“Despite this widespread and rapid uptake, the technology continues to stimulate considerable community debate.
“ABCA’s vision is that the Australian farming sector can, within a world class regulatory regime, access and adopt this technology to improve food security and deliver a competitive farming sector and sustainable environment.”
The US Wheat Associates (USW) also pointed to the USDA report’s key findings that biotech adoption has reduced insecticide use and enabled the use of less toxic herbicides, while saving farmers time and money.
USW said it highlighted that the USDA’s ERS report did look at trends in glyphosate use and concluded there are issues with weed management.
“An overreliance on glyphosate and a reduction in the diversity of weed management practices adopted by crop producers have contributed to the evolution of glyphosate resistance in 14 weed species and biotypes in the United States,” the report said while recommending best management practices to help mitigate resistance.
GM a 'boon' for Canada
Grain Growers of Canada (GGC) president Gary Stanford has also spoken out in favour of genetic modification (GM) technology, saying it had been a boon for his nation’s farmers.
“GM has worked wonders for us in Canada, it has allowed us to grow better crops with less chemicals.
“I think it has been a good thing for everyone,” the Alberta-based farmer said.
However, at the Global Grains conference last week in Singapore it was also heard that European consumer resistance to GM cropping remained strong.
Don Campbell, head of trading at CBH said oilseed producers in Australia remained aware of the importance of the European market and the support it gave to non-GM product.
Mr Stanford, however, called for greater science in terms of market access.
“We need good science as the basis for predictable trade and for market access for product.”
Ag Institute Australia - representing the interests of agricultural science and natural resource management professionals - would welcome and fully co-operate with an inquiry into the impact of GM crops, president Mike Stephens said.
Mr Stephens made the comment in response to proposals seeking such an inquiry contained in two petitions sponsored by the Safe Food Foundation and Food Democracy Now to be submitted to the Senate.
The petitions arose from the case of WA organic farmer Steve Marsh whose non-GM crop became genetically contaminated from his neighbour’s GM canola crop, claiming it cost him his right to produce GM-free food. It is currently being heard in the WA Supreme Court.
Mr Stephens, who is also a director of a farm business advisory service, emphasised that if such an inquiry was to be held it must be evidence-based, balanced and objective, independent of political influences, and representative of all stakeholders, including scientific, economic and environmental interests. It should also recognise the ‘right of choice’ of farmers to use or not use GM technology.
“Overseas evidence of the widespread farmer adoption of GM crops shows that GM technology is here to stay”, Mr Stephens says, “but those food producers who opt out have the right to be protected from crop contamination.”
- with Gregor Heard